A photograph of Newcastle City Centre, 2013

October 25, 2013, by Blue-Green team

Dealing with the complex and ‘wicked’ problem of urban water management – initiating a Learning and Action Alliance (LAA) in Newcastle (part 1)

Breaking down barriers and fragmented thinking to encourage cooperation between a multitude of different stakeholders to build a shared vision. Part 1: defining a LAA and its relevance in the Blue-Green Cities Research Project (Emily Lawson).

Urban water management is often referred to as a ‘wicked’ problem; ‘‘problems that have multiple and conflicting criteria for defining solutions, solutions that create problems for others, and no rules for determining when problems can be said to be solved’’(Rittel and Webber, 1973). So how do you find suitable solutions to urban water problems such as flooding, an issue prevalent in many UK cities and high on the list of policy agenda?

Water management professionals have always worked in partnership with others, yet, managing floods has often been seen as an engineering activity with little involvement from a wider range of stakeholders, notably the general public (Dudley et al., 2013). New frameworks are needed to help us ‘live with floods’ (Newman et al., 2011); instead of aiming to remove water from the surface as quickly as possible (thus creating a reliance on sewer systems and possible overwhelming during high rainfall events), strategies for temporarily storing water on the surface at times of flood, e.g. parks and playing fields, could be developed. This will reduce input into the sewers and free up capacity to enable the drainage system to cope with further expansion.

Learning and Action Alliances (LAA)

One approach is to create a Learning and Action Alliance (LAA). LAAs are a social learning framework, a structure for collaborative working, defined as a ‘group of individuals or organisations with a shared interest in innovation and the scaling-up of innovation, in a topic of mutual interest’ (Batchelor and Butterworth, 2008). When linked with the parallel initiative of active (collaborative) learning and the importance of implementing change, the LAA develops.

LAAs are a cooperative, horizontal forum where people can bring their expertise, but talk freely outside of any organisational constraints in an atmosphere of mutual trust and ownership. They are dynamic groupings that can grow organically, being open to all who have an interest, but within it specific sub-groupings to focus on particular interests and problems are welcomed and encouraged. LAAs provide a platform to facilitate open knowledge-sharing and discussions, encouraging the development of a clearer vision and enabling progress towards that end. This may involve participants willing to take risks and discuss options previously outside their professional remit.

LAAs have been trialled as a framework to establish, maintain and sustain partnerships tackling flooding and wider urban water management in light of the new challenges of urban societies (e.g. Ashley et al., 2012, van Herk et al., 2011, Newman et al., 2010). They have been successfully used in the EU MARE project in Bergen, Dordrecht and Hannover. There is no fixed structure in an LAA; it is important that they are locally and technically grounded and have their own specific vision that evolves over the lifetime of the LAA.

Key aims of LAAs

  • Developing innovation in FRM planning (Dudley et al., 2013) and delivering on the vision
  • Surmounting formal and institutional barriers, operating outside of formal decision making and thus challenging restrictive regulations
  • Influencing local policy and providing the means for decision-makers to adjust to changes in flood risk management strategy and cultural shifts in responsibilities (Ashley et al., 2012)
  • Active learning vehicle for all parties (bring together people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to speak candidly about urban surface water management)
  • Longevity and the continuation of the LAA after the lifetime of the project

Three stages in the life of the LAA (adapted from Dudley et al., 2013)

  • Establishment – core group of investigators driven by a shared vision
  • Functioning – delivering on the vision (reference, legitimacy, mutual respect and trust), challenging regulations and developing novel ideas
  • Sustainability – maintaining interest, specific project focus, continual emphasis of the benefits of participation and addition of new benefits over time

 Ashley et al., (2012) cite four stages; scoping, envisioning, experimenting, reviewing and evaluating.

Challenges and pitfalls

  • Recruiting stakeholders (often time-poor) and maintaining interest
  • Keeping the LAA focussed on refining the Blue-Green Cities vision for Newcastle while allowing innovative thought processes
  • Avoiding fragmentation that is often associated with such complex ‘wicked’ problems 

Using LAAs in the Blue-Green Cities Research Project

LAAs will form a pivotal component of WP1 – Communication. We plan to establish an LAA with key Newcastle stakeholders involved in urban surface water management, e.g. Environment Agency, Newcastle City Council, Newcastle University (and Estates), Northumbrian Water, and develop this to include a range of wider stakeholders encompassing the local community, local interest groups and NGOs, industry and practitioners and land owners and developers.

The initial LAA workshop will take place in late 2013…watch this space for future developments!

Check out our website for more information on Work Package 1 (Communication) and Newcastle as host city for the LAAs.


Posted in Blue-Green Cities research